Best Forward-Facing Sonar for Ice Fishing 2024

Written by: Pete Danylewycz
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Find the best forward facing fish finder in this review

As tech evolves, ice fishing is changing.

And the latest addition to hard-water technology is forward-facing sonar (FFS). Essentially a dual mode transducer mounted on a pole, FFS gives ice anglers an edge when locating fish and working out which lures and techniques call them closer.

Then, in the down-looking mode, they function like the essential fish finders or flashers you’re used to.

Make no mistake about it, these are powerful fishing tools that win tournaments and fill coolers.

Below, we review the best ice-fishing forward-facing sonar systems, explaining why these options made our shortlist.


Best Forward Facing Ice Fishing Sonars Reviewed

Best Overall
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Garmin ECHOMAP UHD2 LiveScope Plus Ice-Fishing Bundle LI

USAngler Rating:

This Garmin outstrips the competition in both real-world range and image quality, no doubt thanks to the awesome LiveScope Plus LVS34-IF transducer on the end of your pole.


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Specifications

Weight: 22.5 lbs.
Display size: 9”
Resolution: 1024 x 600
Frequencies: 530 - 1,100 kHz
Maximum range and depth: 200 feet
GPS: Yes
Maps: Yes
Data card compatibility: 1 microSD card; 32 GB maximum size

Summary

While Garmin’s ECHOMAP Ultra 126sv dominates the open water, we wanted to know how the ECHOMAP UHD2 LiveScope Plus Ice-Fishing Bundle LI stacked up against the competition.

Garmin’s screens are typically very good, and this one is no exception. Bright and legible, you’ll be able to read the screen even when the sun breaks through the cloud cover. Inside a shack or shelter, legibility is simply excellent.

As you’d expect from Garmin, this fish finder is designed with user-friendliness firmly in mind.

Right out of the box, in contrast to the Humminbird’s almost puzzle-like complexity, the Garmin demands no assembly short of putting the pole together and attaching the LVS34-IF transducer.

Trust me, that’s a huge amount of frustration Garmin managed to avoid!

And when you’ve got your ECHOMAP UHD2 ready to go, navigating its controls is simple and intuitive. You won’t need to bring the manual along or have customer service on speed dial.

If that weren't enough of a selling point, this Garmin outstrips the competition in both real-world range and image quality, no doubt thanks to the awesome LiveScope Plus LVS34-IF transducer on the end of your pole.

Garmin LiveScope Plus LVS34-IF transducer

Garmin’s LiveScope Plus LVS34-IF transducer is one of the best on the market.

The ECHOMAP UHD2 LiveScope Plus offers both forward-facing and standard downward-facing sonar options, promising a range of 200 feet in both. In the real world, that’s optimistic at best, and we think you should expect realistic performance to be about half that.

Nevertheless, that’s still amazing performance, and you’ll be drilling fewer holes and find yourself on the fish much faster when you can spot them from 100 feet away.

Garmin GLS 10

Garmin’s GLS 10 is the brain of this system.

Garmin’s LiveScope offers amazing live-action images after running the sonar data collected by the transducer through the GLS 10 sonar module, the “black box” that processes that signal.

In FFS mode, you’ll be able to tell the difference between bait fish and pike, see what lures call bass in for a closer look, and identify which brush piles hold a school of fat slabs.

That’s a game changer, no question about it.

In standard down scanning mode, you can monitor your jigging intensity, altering it to trigger strikes.

That ice-fishing two step is the new normal, and the ability to move from locating fish to working your jig like a pro makes all the difference, whether you’re looking for a tournament win or just bragging rights.

Garmin packs high-end tech like GPS and maps into this unit, too, including way marking and spot marking, awesome mapping tech, and a Micro-SD map card that has you covered on most inland waters. And by networking your fish finder with the ActiveCaptain app on your phone, you gain even more features.

With excellent maps, GPS, and FFS in play, you’ll spend less time drilling holes and more time jigging, guaranteed.

You’re going to pay a premium for this awesome tech, and FFS systems for the ice don’t come cheap.

But for our money, the Garmin ECHOMAP UHD2 LiveScope Plus Ice-Fishing Bundle LI is the best system currently available, offering outstanding image quality and greater user friendliness than the alternatives from Lowrance and Humminbird.

See The Full Review: Garmin ECHOMAP UHD2 LiveScope Plus Ice-Fishing Bundle LI

Pros & Cons

Pros
  • Awesome image quality from the LiveScope system
  • Simple and intuitive user interface
  • Great mapping and GPS tech
Cons
  • Expensive

Most Affordable
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USAngler Rating:

Overall, we like the Lowrance Explorer Elite FS 9, and at least at the moment, it’s the most affordable of the three picks on our shortlist. It’s also the lightest and easiest to carry, a huge bonus if you’ve got a long slog off your snowmachine.


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Specifications

Weight: 13 lbs.
Display size: 9”
Resolution: 800 x 480
Frequencies: 550 - 1110 kHz
Maximum range and depth: 200 feet
GPS: Yes
Maps: Yes
Data card compatibility: 1 microSD card; 32 GB maximum size

Summary

Lowrance is the second of the “Big Three,” a perennial competitor with Garmin and Humminbird. Lowrance’s HDS-12 Live, their top-of-the-line model is really something, and we naturally wondered how the Elite FS 9 with the Explorer pack stacks up against the alternatives.

Lowrance isn’t giving much away about the specs of this system, and that’s typically a sign that apples-to-apples comparisons wouldn’t be favorable. That’s only a guess, of course, but if they were proud of the numbers, you’d think they’d make them easy to find.

As far as we can tell, the Explorer Elite FS 9 is the standard Elite FS 9 connected to a new black box and upgraded transducer.

The Elite FS 9 offers a very nice screen, that while not as readable as the amazing HDS Live 12 in direct sunlight or at extreme viewing angles, is roughly comparable to what you get from Garmin and Humminbird.

In our experience, the legibility of Active Target images is reduced by bright sunlight, and you may need to reposition your screen to provide more shade.

Lowrance’s range of fishfinders isn’t known for its user-friendliness, and the Elite FS 9 is certainly no exception in this regard. Despite a touch screen and some basic buttons, it can be frustrating to get this unit to do exactly what you want, and it takes some time to really master the functions it’s capable of.

Lowrance supplies the Explorer with its powerful Active Target transducer, capable of three modes: down, forward, and scout.

Down mode is just what you’d expect, offering moving images of what’s beneath the transducer, and there’s no question that image quality is excellent.

Forward is the FFS setting for this unit, offering an Active Target image that can help you find fish quickly, drill holes right where you need them, and simply catch more fish through the hard water.

Scout mode offers an overhead, forward-facing view, essentially combining down and forward into one picture.

In the real world, image quality and fish detection were limited to a bit less than 100 feet, allowing the Garmin ECHOMAP UHD2 a 10 to 15 percent advantage on this front.

Lowrance Active Target transducer

Lowrance’s Active Target transducer offers three modes: down, forward, and scout.

Within its effective range, Active Target provided great image quality, allowing us to differentiate bluegill from bass and study how they reacted to different lures and presentations.

Lowrance is a world leader in marine GPS, chartplotting, and mapping, and that experience shows. Their C-MAP Contour+ mapping and pre-loaded micro-SD card maps are a fantastic addition, offering ½-foot contour bathymetric maps of most lakes, ponds, and rivers in the US.

This feature can help you plan your strategy before you get on the ice, assisting you in selecting the most likely spots to start drilling.

Overall, we like the Lowrance Explorer Elite FS 9, and at least at the moment, it’s the most affordable of the three picks on our shortlist. It’s also the lightest and easiest to carry, a huge bonus if you’ve got a long slog off your snowmachine.

If the staggering price of FFS is a major obstacle for you, definitely take a look at the Lowrance.

See The Full Review: Lowrance Explorer Elite FS 9 and ActiveTarget Live Sonar Ice Kit Review

Pros & Cons

Pros
  • Awesome image quality from the Active Target system
  • Great mapping and GPS tech
  • Competitive price
  • Light and easy to pack around on the ice
Cons
  • Confusing UI
  • Less real-world range than the Garmin

Best Year-Round
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USAngler Rating:

The strongest selling point of the ICE HELIX 9 MSI+ GPS G4N MEGA Live is that it can be used on open water as well, and is just as capable on your boat as it is sitting on the hard water.


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Specifications

Weight: ?
Display size: 9”
Resolution: 1024 x 600
Frequencies: 1050 kHz
Maximum range and depth: 150 feet
GPS: Yes
Maps: Yes
Data card compatibility: 2 microSD card; 32 GB maximum size

Summary

Humminbird’s impressive line of fish-finding electronics includes the powerful Humminbird APEX 13 MEGA SI+ Fish Finder/GPS Chartplotter, a real piece of tech wizardry.

But what about their FFS system for the ice?

The ICE HELIX 9 MSI+ GPS G4N MEGA Live is built around the HELIX 9, a capable unit to be sure. Its nine-inch screen is bright, providing really nice image quality. Humminbird’s screens are typically very good, and the HELIX is easily readable in everything but direct sunlight.

Unfortunately, Humminbird is the worst of the “Big Three” in terms of its user interface, and getting this unit to function for you is going to take some careful study of the manual and plenty of practice.

And unlike the Garmin, some assembly is required. When we tried, we found it frustrating, slow, and tedious, but we eventually got it together.

Humminbird includes the XI 9 19 ice transducer with this package, but the magic happens through the pole-mounted MEGA Live transducer.

ICE HELIX 9 bracket

This unit offers forward and down modes, as well as a 2D flasher mode that makes use of the standard ice transducer.

As you’d expect from Humminbird, the image quality of the FFS is great, though the real-world range is roughly on par with the Lowrance, but not quite as good once you reach its limits. It still provides plenty of fish finding capability, and in conjunction with a solid plan and the on-board maps, you won’t struggle to find the fish and drill the holes you need to catch them.

I’d say that the strongest selling point of the ICE HELIX 9 MSI+ GPS G4N MEGA Live is that it can be used on open water as well and is just as capable on your boat as it is sitting on the hard water.

Humminbird pre-loads Humminbird Basemaps, giving you a huge library of pre-made maps, and of course, you have access to not one, but two micro-SD card slots. That, plus its powerful AutoChart Live ICE, means that the Humminbird probably bests the Garmin and Lowrance for mapping, with GPS functions that are neck and neck with its competitors.

Humminbird has chosen to add a “jig charging” feature that makes the screen shine brightly to get your glowing jigs lit up, but in practice, it’s a huge drain on your battery.

There’s a lot to like about the Humminbird as a year-round option, but the lack of a carrying case, the worst real-world range of the three options on our shortlist, and a pretty uncompetitive price have us looking elsewhere.

See The Full Review: Humminbird ICE HELIX 9 Review

Pros & Cons

Pros
  • Awesome image quality from the MEGA Live system
  • Great mapping and GPS tech
  • Easily converts to use on your boat
Cons
  • Confusing UI
  • Less real-world range than the Garmin
  • No carrying case to allow hands-free toting out on the ice

How We Tested: What to Look for in a Great FFS Fish Finder for the Ice

Image quality

Live, moving images have changed how anglers use fish-finding tech.

Now you can watch fish, studying how your technique, presentation, and lure affect their interest, enabling you to adjust your jigging in real time to better lure fish in for a strike.

Garmin, Lowrance, and Humminbird offer roughly equivalent image quality via powerful transducers that transmit ultra-high frequencies. These quickly oscillating sound waves carry more data than lower frequencies, allowing their black boxes to translate raw information into vivid, real-time, moving images.

The downside to this awesome tech is that high frequencies just don’t penetrate the water column very well, and that doesn’t change when you aim them horizontally, as FFS does.

In our testing, Garmin and Humminbird provided slightly better image quality than Lowrance, as some skipping and lagging was evident with the latter unit.

Range

FFS manufacturers make some pretty boil claims about the range of their products.

These numbers may well be accurate under ideal circumstances, but in the real world, they’re not even close.

Expect roughly half of the stated number in usable range.

In our testing, the Garmin was the best of the three, followed closely by Lowrance and Humminbird, in that order.

Ease of operation

If there’s one thing that most anglers can agree about, it’s that the user interface on a fish finder needs to be simple, inuitive, and easy to master.

Garmin is the clear leader on this front, and their UI is the best by a mile.

Lowrance and Humminbird lag behind, and it’ll take careful attention to the user’s manual and slime practice on dry land to learn to use all the features on offer.

Battery life

Frigid temperatures devour battery life like a hungry dog.

Each of these units comes with a typical battery that’s good for 6 to 10 hours, depending on your use and the ambient temp.

BUt keep in mind that none of these fish finders is rated to work below 5 F. If it’s really cold, you’ll need to be in shelter and keep your fish finder and battery warm.

Portability

Weight matters, and the Garmin is hefty.

Ideally, an FFS comes with a backpack that allows you to tote it out onto the ice and leave your hands free. 

Fortunately, Garmin and Lowrance realize this.

Unfortunately, Humminbird doesn’t.

Our Pick: Garmin ECHOMAP UHD2 LiveScope Plus Ice-Fishing Bundle LI

While you can save some money by choosing the Lowrance, the Garmin ECHOMAP UHD2 is the best of the bunch in terms of pure performance.

Live imaging like LiveScope requires ultra-high frequencies to provide the detail necessary for good image quality, but high frequencies can’t penetrate water very well. That means that there’s an unavoidable trade off here: you sacrifice range for great images.

SInce the real advantage of FFS is that it allows you to drill a test hole and look for fish at a distance, range matters, and Garmin provides the best performance by a margin of 20 percent or so. In the real-world, that’s a difference that matters.

Combine that with simple, intuitive controls and a nice screen and you have a winner.

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